Mitigation and Reasonable Adjustment in Doctoral Education

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On May 10th 2024, we partnered with the University of Warwick for an interactive workshop at Friends House in London looking at sector practices related to mitigating circumstances and reasonable adjustments in doctoral education.

The workshop began with introductions from Dr James Burford and colleagues who are engaged on the Mitigation and Adjustment for Doctoral Education (MADE) project at the University of Warwick. They want to address the in-between’ position occupied by PGRs in many universities, whereby they are left navigating institutional policies that primarily cater to undergraduate and postgraduate taught students. The MADE project has four key aims:

  1. To map how PGR students and university staff understand the RA/MC policies, processes and practices for PGRs, particularly around assessment. To identify any current barriers to inclusion and opportunities for improvement.
  2. To explore how PGR graduates who have had RAs navigated participation in their doctoral studies and assessment.
  3. To engage in sector-level consultation in order to identify best practices for RA/MC at the PGR level nationally.
  4. To identify changes at the institutional level to ensure that RA/MC for PGRs are embedded in transparent processes.

Once the project had been introduced and terms of reference defined, the workshop started by eliciting feedback from the delegates about their challenges in these areas and what they hoped to get out of the day (the event was held under the Chatham House Rule, to facilitate open discussion, which is why the comments below are anonymised).

Some of the points raised include:

  • What is best practice? How do you monitor it?
  • There are a lot of inconsistencies and no central guidance — how can we decide where responsibilities lie for addressing problems that PhD students might encounter? Should the supervisor always be responsible?
  • When (if ever) is a formal diagnosis required?
  • How do we raise the profile of PGRs amongst different teams across the university?

Throughout the workshop, participants delved into strategies for bridging these gaps. It was also acknowledged that the language used across universities and departments will probably differ. Another important theme emerged around reasonable adjustment and the meaning of reasonable’. Rather than ask Is it reasonable?’ we should just use the word adjustment’” suggested one participant. Another said that they tried to avoid patronising language when trying to help solve problems for a PGR — instead of asking What do you need?” they replaced it with the question: What can you already do [to solve the problem]?” They would then collaborate with the student on a plan of action.

The day concluded with a summing-up of learnings and potential best practices. These included:

  • Trying to catch students who wouldn’t normally raise problems by building in prompts into supervisor conversations.
  • Signposting students to support options early and often.
  • Normalising some of the issues that students face by having open and honest conversations.

As one participant said, The best thing we can do is to empower students to solve problems”; another added: We’re very precious about what goes on [in universities] so it’s nice to have an open discussion today”.

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